Thursday, February 27, 2020

Living in Lent - how and why

The story is told of Sean O'Flannery, a lad who moved to Boston from Dublin. Coming home from school one day he went into an ice cream shop and told the jerk behind the counter (the soda jerk) "One scoop of yer best chocolate ice cream in four dishes!"

Soda jerks get strange requests, so he set four dishes with one scoop each in front of Sean. Sean took a spoon of one, held it before his face and loudly announced, "This is me beloved cousin eating ice cream back in the old country!" He ate the ice cream and took a spoonful from another scoop, "This is me dear friend Kelly eating ice cream back in me homeland!" The third dish he said was his favorite uncle, Finian, eating ice cream back home.

Sean raised the last scoop and said, "And this dish is for me!"

This practice went on for several months until one evening as the soda jerk was filling the four dishes Sean stopped him and said quietly, "Only three dishes today, please."

The soda jerk asked, "Did you suffer a loss and that is why you only want three scoops?"

"Heaven's no!" protested Sean O'Flannery. "It's Lent now, and I've given up ice cream!"

The word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word, “lencten,” meaning Spring, the season in which Easter occurs. The forty days before Easter constitute the Lenten season, but the forty-day count does not include Sundays. All Sundays celebrate the resurrection, and so are excluded from the forty days count. The forty days duration is drawn from the length of time Jesus spent in prayer and fasting in the wilderness before he set out on his three-year ministry.

Matthew 4.1-4:

1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
As originally conceived by the church long ago, the Lenten sacrifice was instituted as a “means of penitential preparation and preparation for baptism, which in the early church customarily took place on Easter Sunday.”

The tradition of fasting during Lent is an early one, originally done between Good Friday and Easter morning, the forty hours that Jesus was in the tomb. Christians would partake of no food or drink at all during that time. The fast was extended to the forty days before Easter sometime between 300 and 325, and changed so that food could be eaten only when evening had come.

The idea behind the fast was to imitate Christ. In addition to fasting, Christians would devote themselves to making prayer a faithful habit. So “prayer and fasting” have been closely linked for a long time.

And that brings me, by a rather circuitous route, to chocolate.

Chocolate is an absolutely unessential food, nutritionally speaking. We eat chocolate for no reason other than it is pleasurable. Since denial of the flesh is a prominent theme of Lent, rejection of chocolate in Lent is often offered as the Lenten sacrifice, particularly by people who wish to diet anyway.

But the Lenten season is also a time we ponder and wonder about the love of God. God’s love knows no bounds or limits and was so strong that not even the prospect of cruel death could deter Jesus from his redemptive mission. While we deny the pleasures of life during Lent, Jesus denied his life itself for the sake of his love for us.

Perhaps that fact could put a different spin on our concepts of giving something up for Lent. The Lenten sacrifice is best oriented toward that which most blocks our spiritual growth. It is each to ask ourselves, “What is it that most keeps me from Christ-likeness?” If that thing is chocolate, then it is appropriate to give up chocolate for Lent. But if something else is your greatest obstacle in being more Christlike, then giving up chocolate is a spiritually pointless exercise.

The question is this: “What is the one thing that most hinders my Christian growth into the person whom God wants me to be?” The answer may not be easy, but it will always involve self-denial. We think that following Christ is hard because to obey Christ we must first disobey ourselves, and it is disobeying ourselves that makes us think following Christ is hard.

But Jesus said his yoke is easy, his burden is light. We just have to get over ourselves to do it.

As Robert Mulholland put it, “Jesus is not talking about giving up candy for Lent. He is calling for the abandonment of our entire, pervasive, deeply entrenched matrix of self-referenced being.”

If we focus on that between now and Easter Day, then we have a chance to become more mature in Christian faith and practice. It may be a habit that is out of true with Christian character that needs to be overcome for further growth. Or it may be a thing undone which must be done for deeper development to occur. The Lenten idea is for our habits to change enough in the next few weeks so that we can continue at a higher level of discipleship after Easter. The Lenten season and the Lenten sacrifice are not the points in and of themselves, the whole life of discipleship is.

Focusing on the one big thing is not the only Lenten discipline that would be helpful for spiritual development. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, insisted that the only thing that distinguishes the Christian from the non-Christian are how we use our time and money. So, for the period of Lent I would suggest focusing on those two things in addition to whatever one big spiritual obstacle you might have. Some suggestions:
  • Tithe all your income until Easter. 
  • Devote yourself to prayer daily and attending worship every Sunday. If you are traveling, say on business or spring break, then worship wherever you are.
  • Read the Bible each day. 
  • Call someone you love and let them know. 
  • Ask people who live alone to join you for lunch or whether you can visit them. 
  • Become involved in Christian ministries.
  • Re-establish or reinforce important relationships in your life.
Spiritually speaking, it is not enough to simply excise sin or personal vices from our lives. We have to replace vice with virtue. Thus, simply giving up something like chocolate for Lent is simply silly if we are only counting the days when we can start doing it again. That’s a game, not a spiritual discipline.

Lent should be a period of joyful, God-directed introspection into how we may be further united with Christ in godly love. If we make Lent into a severe, joyless, self-justifying exercise in self-denial, we have missed the point. Jesus sternly admonished teachers of the religious law and the Pharisees not to practice the letter of the law while neglecting “the more important matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23).

When a lawyer asked Jesus, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

That is the whole point of spiritual growth and spiritual discipline, and hence the whole point of Lent: love. We are to be living ambassadors from God to one another and the world at large in Christ’s name. Christ was crucified, buried and raised from the dead for our sake and the sake of the whole world. Let us rededicate ourselves to being Christ’s ambassadors. It’s Lent, after all; it’s all about love, you see, Lent is all about love.

Monday, February 10, 2020

50 Ways to Take Church to the Community

The Lewis Center is an agency of the Tennessee Conference. Here are its 50 Ways to Take Church to the Community. Herte is the link to download the PDF version.

Here is the text pasted:

Churches can no longer open their doors and expect that people will come in. Effective congregations go into the world to encounter those in need of the gospel. These 50 Ways provide tips on reaching beyond the walls of your church with worship, community events, ministries, and service.
Embrace an expansive concept of community
  1. Learn to regard your community as an extension of your congregation. A church’s mission field goes beyond its membership to include all the people God calls it to serve. You are connected to individuals who never set foot in your building.
  2. Know that what’s happening within the church — preaching, worship, music, Bible study — is no longer enough to attract people in an age when church attendance is no longer a cultural expectation.
  3. Don’t sit in your church building waiting for people to come. Be prepared to meet people where they are.
Prepare spiritually
  1. Acknowledge the synergy between the Great Commandment in Matthew 22 (love your neighbor as yourself) and the Great Commission in Matthew 28 (go and make disciples). Evangelistic outreach expresses our love of others.
  2. Remember that Jesus primarily engaged people through everyday encounters, rather than in the Temple or synagogues. He fed people, met their everyday needs, and enjoyed the fellowship of others.
  3. Express love and compassion for your community in big and small ways. Avoid judgmentalism.
  4. Pray regularly for your neighbors and lift up community concerns.
  5. Attend to the faith formation of existing members. Willingness to share faith and reach out to others develops as one grows in faith and discipleship.
  6. Prepare spiritually for the transformation that creative, risk-taking outreach will bring.
Get to know the community surrounding your church
  1. Review demographic data from public, private, and denominational sources, but don’t assume that statistics alone will tell the whole story.
  2. Get out in your neighborhood. Walk the streets. Map the area, and record your observations. Note how the community is changing.
  3. Assess community needs and assets. What are the needs of your context? Who are your neighbors, and how can you serve them?
  4. Be attuned to where God is already at work in your community.
Listen and learn
  1. Know that ministries that truly bless a community often arise out of conversations where you listen for the hopes and dreams of people in your community.
  2. Interview residents of the community. Sit in a park, diner, or coffee house. Ask simply, “What are your challenges, hopes, longings and dreams?”
  3. Get to know the major public officials. They are people with tremendous influence. They need to know of your church’s commitment to the community.
  4. Involve many people from your church in this work. Hold one another accountable to the tasks of engaging and learning from others.
  5. Discern clusters of issues and concerns that arise from these conversations. Ask what issues, suffering, injustices, or brokenness might you address.
Build authentic relationships
  1. Strive for meaningful engagement with others, not superficial gestures.
  2. Make sure you are reaching out to people for the right reasons. If your motive is simply to get them to come to church, people will see right through to it.
  3. Maintain appropriate boundaries, and respect all with whom you engage.
  4. Collaborate with others who are also passionate about the community. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you can partner with someone else serving the community.
Turn your existing ministries outward
  1. Challenge each church group with an inside focus to find a way to become involved with the community outside the church. A choir might sing at a nursing home, or trustees could sponsor a neighborhood clean-up.
  2. Extend recruiting and advertising for church groups and events to audiences beyond your congregation. For example, recruit for choir members in a local paper or community list serve.
  3. Build relationships with those taking part in existing programs that serve the community, such as ESL classes, food pantry or clothes bank users, daycare families, etc.
Reach out through community events
  1. Plan “bridge events” designed explicitly to draw people from the community by providing for them something they need or enjoy — block parties, free concerts, seasonal events, parenting classes, sports camps, or school supply giveaways, etc. Source: Get Their Name by Bob Farr, Doug Anderson, and Kay Kotan (Abingdon Press, 2013)
  2. Hold these events off church property or outside the church walls in venues where people feel comfortable and naturally congregate.
  3. Get the word out through a well-planned publicity campaign.
  4. Encourage church members to invite their friends and neighbors. It is less threatening for them to invite someone to a community event than to worship.
  5. Avoid explicitly religious themes: no preaching, prayers, pressure, or financial appeals that might turn people off or reinforce negative stereotypes about church.
  6. Remember, the event itself is not the purpose. The purpose is to meet people where they are and build relationships. Mingle. Get to know people.
  7. Have a well-trained hospitality team. Make sure guests are enjoying themselves and know their attendance is appreciated.
  8. Gathering people’s names and information about them will permit follow up to those for whom it is appropriate.
  9. Invite those who attend community events to another event — sometimes called a “hand off event” — planned to draw them into a deeper relationship.
Extend your congregation’s spiritual presence beyond church walls
  1. Recognize that many “unchurched” people are spiritually inclined but apprehensive about attending church because they feel unwelcome, distrust institutions, or have been hurt in the past.
  2. Pay attention to the heightened receptiveness to spiritual engagement around religious holidays such as Easter and Christmas.
  3. Offer offsite worship services on special days, such as Christmas Eve, Palm Sunday, and Easter. Select familiar venues where people feel comfortable — parks, restaurants, parking lots, coffee houses.
  4. Offer imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday in public places.
  5. Partner with other institutions (such as nursing homes, hospitals, or prisons) or commercial establishments (restaurants, bars, shopping centers, or sports facilities) to offer worship services to their constituents or clientele on special days.
  6. Plan creative outdoor events, such as live nativities or “blessing of the animals” services, to help make your church visibly present to the community in creative ways.
  7. Hold your Vacation Bible School in a local park or recreation center. Canvas nearby neighborhoods to invite families.
  8. Reach out to local media. Community outreach is often newsworthy, and reporters are often looking for religiously themed stories around the holidays.
Connect spiritual outreach to community service
  1. Acknowledge that many served through feeding and clothing ministries, justice ministries, weekday children’s services, and other ministries of community service have no other connections with our churches.
  2. Ask if these ministries inadvertently convey an “us and them” attitude or communicate that “you are not worthy of joining us.”
  3. Identify aspects of church life, such as characteristics of the building or how people dress, that may make some feel unwelcome. Are there alternatives that may reduce barriers for some to enter?
  4. Treat everyone as a person of dignity who deserves respect.
  5. Extend genuine hospitality to those you serve.
  6. Focus first on building relationships of understanding and trust.
  7. Consider adding a spiritual or discipleship element to community service activities but without any sense of expectation or requirement. For example, have a service or study following ESL classes for any interested.
  8. Seek to conduct each activity in a way that connects people to God and the church.
Contributors: Robert Crossman, Ann A. Michel, Kim Mitchel, and Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

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